Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Director: Bruce Humberstone                           Writer: Dwight Taylor
Film Score: Cyril J. Mockridge                          Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Starring: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis and Laird Cregar

Despite the title, I Wake Up Screaming is something of an odd mix of film noir and comedy. The concept had been tried before when Warner Brothers remade The Maltese Falcon as a comedy with Bette Davis in 1936 and named it Satan Met a Lady, but it works better here, primarily due to the presence of Betty Grable who is a lot more familiar with comedy than Davis ever was. The film was originally titled Hot Spot, a double meaning for both celebrity and the electric chair, and there were even posters made with that title. In retrospect that would have been a much better title than the misleading one it ended up with. Most books on noir call in a prototype, or early noir, and give it a lot of praise. But while it does have the dark look of the city and is filled with chiaroscuro lighting, it doesn’t seem worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as most noir films which take themselves far more seriously. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t a good picture. In fact, it’s a quite enjoyable mystery, livened considerably by the comedic elements. It was based on the hard-boiled novel of the same name by Steve Fisher that did deserve the title. The novel was originally set in Hollywood, but it would be another decade before studios became comfortable criticizing themselves, so Darryl Zanuck switched the location to New York.

The credits begin with a generic shot of a city at night, accompanied by the popular theme from Street Scene, by Alfred Newman from a decade earlier, that Fox used in many of their other films. The film begins with Victor Mature in the basement of the police station, being grilled under the bright lights for the murder of Carole Landis. When detective William Gargan asks him to tell the story again, he begins by meeting Landis as a waitress in a coffee shop with friends Alan Mobray and Allyn Joslin, then taking her out the next night to a nightclub where she turns heads as part of a plan the three of them have to turn her from a nobody into a society darling. Elisha Cook Jr. is the doorman at the hotel where she lives with her sister, Betty Grable, who is now in the next room at the police station being questioned herself. Sparks fly when Grable meets Mature the following morning, as she is sure he’s up to no good making her sister think she can be a star, but it’s also clear Mature likes her a lot. Things go south when Landis takes an offer from a Hollywood big shot and tells everyone she’s moving to California. Back at the police station Grable remembers seeing creepy Laird Cregar staring at her sister at the coffee shop, but then he winds up being the detective in charge of the whole investigation. It turns out that Grable found Mature over the body of her sister in the apartment, and that’s how they both became suspects, because Landis knew they were in love with each other.

The whole thing is such a strange mixture of the obsessive cop, Laird Cregar, behaving like Javert in Les Misérables, so certain is he that Victor Mature is guilty. But it’s Cregar himself who is the most suspicious character in the film. The writing by Dwight Taylor is also very well done, especially the gags that he gives to Mature and Grable. There’s also a positively delightful bit of physical humor with a cop and a Murphy bed. All the leads are terrific, and very watchable. A few familiar character actors pop up during the course of the film, Bert Stevens and Frank McClure show up at a nightclub, Frank Orth plays a cemetery caretaker, and the unforgettable Charles Lane appears as a florist. One of the decided weaknesses of the film is the score, if you can even call it that, by Cyril J. Mockridge. Unlike the repeated use of the theme song by David Raksin in different forms for Laura three years later, Mockridge simply repeats the same recording of Street Scene over and over for the dramatic scenes, and for the love theme for Grable and Mature he uses “Over the Rainbow.” At times, when Grable is alone, “Mona Lisa” shows up, but it’s pretty unimaginative overall. I Wake Up Screaming is an enjoyable film that could be a disappointment if gone into expecting straight noir. But as a somewhat clichéd murder mystery-comedy it’s quite good.

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